On Tuesday I’ll be doing a presentation at the IATEFL Global issues/Creativity group pre-conference event in Birmingham. The title of my talk is Creativity and Memorisation: finding the links. As a teacher and teacher trainer, this has been an area of interest of mine for a long time, and it’s something that I thought about a lot when I was writing Memory Activities for Language Learning.
In my talk I’m going to be focussing on the conflict that exists between teacher training programmes and exam systems in many parts of the world. As I see it, the importance of fostering creativity in language learners is something which is increasingly emphasised with new teachers, and yet the majority of the world’s language learners are working towards tests and exams which heavily prioritise memorisation and learning by heart. Are these two learning activities at opposing ends of a spectrum, or are they actually more closely linked than we might think?
We tend to think of creativity as being about production of language: writing a story, composing a song, or improvising. But could it be that creative processes are also involved in the storage of language, in committing language to memory. The late, great Earl Stevick (1993) certainly saw a powerful connection between creativity and memory.
‘Our imagining equipment is intimately associated with our remembering equipment…In order for this wonderful equipment to serve our students best, we need to provide occasions for its use..and some kind of distinctive, meaningful response to what imagination has produced.’
Imagination and Memories: Friends or Enemies (Earl Stevick 1993)
One group of people who work very much within these two realms of creativity and memory are actors. What kinds of creative processes do they employ when learning the lines of a play? Noice and Noice’s (2006) research found that using movements and physical gestures which were appropriate to the meaning of the line at the time of memorisation really helped the line to stick. Interestingly it was not always necessary to retrieve the movement in order to retrieve the line that it corresponded to. This indicates that imagination is also being activated: to retrieve the lines effectively actors are linking the words in their minds to movements, to existing knowledge, to their meanings, and to their emotional value. They’re not just consuming the lines – they are making them their own through creativity.
Of course these processes doesn’t just apply to professional actors, they also apply to children performing plays or telling stories that they’ve memorised in class. I think you can see them happening in this video of Sally in Beit-Hanoun, telling the traditional Palestinian story of Tunjur! . She’s learnt it by heart, but it’s also very much her own creative interpretation of what she has memorised, and my guess is that, because of this, it will stay with her for quite a while.
What is the long term impact of learning the lines of a story or a play? Will it help the learner when it comes to taking their exams years later? Is it a way of building up a bank of language that can be retrieved when needed for communication?
Twenty five years ago I took part in a community play in a swimming pool in Herning, Denmark. Though it makes me cringe to watch this short clip now, especially for my strong English accent, my limited acting skills and my haircut :-), I really do remember it like it was yesterday. Here’s the final scene where I had to dive into the swimming pool, swim underwater, defeat the black baron, be offered the throne, and then finally refuse it and sail away. This was certainly a very memorable experience for me and it’s interesting how after all this time I can still remember so many of the lines. I wonder if by doing plays with our learners in class we are providing them with experiences that they will remember a long way into the future. What do you think?
Noice, H and Noice, T (2006) What studies of actors and acting can tell us about cognitive functioning; Current Directions in Psychological Science
Stevick, E (1993) Imagination and Memories: Friends or Enemies; Journal of the Imagination in Language Learning and Teaching